A report urges Youngstown to focus demo efforts on its more stable neighborhoods
By David Skolnick
A report on the city’s demolition program praises a number of “important and/or innovative” efforts, but urged significant changes to have a greater impact on improving its stronger neighborhoods.
“If Youngstown is to survive as a residential location, it must shift focus from prioritizing those areas with severe blight to stabilizing healthier neighborhoods and retaining the existing population,” reads a report from BCT Partners, a New Brunswick, N.J., firm that works with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The report was done as part of Youngstown’s involvement in the federal Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) initiative.
“The report raised many good points, and it reflects a number of improvements the city has made while recognizing the inherent difficulties the city faces while trying to improve the program,” said city Law Director Anthony Farris.
The report states among the reasons the city has “unfocused demolition activity has been due to funding program requirements and/or the impact of the Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Additionally, in order to stretch financial resources, Youngstown sought to demolish the least-expensive properties first, which resulted in a less-targeted demolition program, thereby lowering impact.”
The city has demolished 2,674 structures from 2006 to September of this year, but there are about 4,000 to 4,500 vacant structures in Youngstown, according to the report.
City officials acknowledge a “scattershot approach” to demolition in which one or two houses on a street are taken down rather than several, and are trying to be more focused in recent years to impact neighborhoods.
The report called the approach “an informal ‘worst first’ strategy” in which demolition work is done in the most-blighted areas first.
But that strategy won’t help stabilize neighborhoods that are healthy, the report states.
Mayor Charles Sammarone said he agrees with much of the report.
“I’ve heard it before from HUD that they don’t like scattershot and that we should put our money into one area,” he said. “On paper, it sounds like a good idea, but how do you sell it to constituents who aren’t in the targeted neighborhoods and have to live near a vacant house? We want to demo houses in neighborhoods that are stable, but you still owe services to everyone in the city.”
Farris agrees that a “worst first” policy isn’t the best option.
“The majority of the money needs to be spent strategically, but a small amount can be used to help neighborhoods in need,” he said.
Among other suggestions in the report are: having a senior manager responsible for coordinating demolition and code-enforcement activities, cross-training staff, and identifying and pursuing funding sources and cost-savings measures.
“Demolition is one community development tool needed to keep the public safe and eliminate blight; however, preservation and stabilization strategies must always take precedence to ensure the survival of the city and neighborhoods,” the study states.
The study also states Youngstown “implemented several important and/or innovative components in its demolition system not necessarily seen in other small, and even in some of the larger, cities.”
That includes: increasing code-enforcement efforts, getting property owners to demolish their own vacant structures, implementing a rental and vacant property registration program, working with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. to make improvements in targeted neighborhoods and serving as the city’s planner, and a property maintenance code that requires $10,000 bonds for properties in foreclosure.
HUD selected Youngs-town in December 2011 for the SC2 initiative, designed to give struggling cities needed resources to spur economic growth and operational efficiency.